The admissions essay was the toughest part of Agathe Keim’s MBA application to IMD in Switzerland. She had to provide an example of how she failed as a leader, in 300 words.
“It took me a while to define ‘a leader’ and share the right story in a limited number of words,” she says. Keim, who is French, chose an instance when she raised an issue with a work colleague. “They reacted strongly about me putting them on the spot in front of people,” says Keim. “It should have been a one-on-one discussion.”
She was admitted to IMD in 2019, after three years at the Boston Consulting Group in Geneva, Switzerland. Keim wanted to marry her engineering background with business. BCG also offered to pay her tuition fees.
Like many other prospective MBA students, she wanted a full-time course to form close bonds, but the format is intense and incurs an opportunity cost of not working. There are also living expenses to consider.
MBA application step one: narrowing down the list
Prospective students will need to decide whether to go full-time or part-time, online or in-person, and for either a one or two-year MBA course. A lengthier program with a summer internship can help to pull off a career switch, but will be more costly. A part-time or online program means you can continue working, but you may miss out on vital networking on campus.
Given the huge investment of time and money required to obtain an MBA, it is also critical to pick the right business school.
Rankings and accreditations from bodies such as EQUIS and AACSB are a good quality stamp. But make sure the institution matches your career goals, says Renee Cherubin, senior director of admissions at the Kellogg School of Management.
You should research the employment statistics of recent graduates and alumni, which will give you a clear indication of where students are being employed and in what roles, says Emily Centeno, head of marketing, admissions and communications at ESCP Europe’s London campus.
Kellogg, for example, is renowned for its connections to the consulting industry. “Business schools are not ‘one size fits all’. Without due diligence, it is difficult to pick up on the nuances that can make one school the perfect fit,” says Cherubin.
“Taking time for this reflection will help you think through what you want to communicate during the application process,” she adds.
Would-be MBAs should talk to current students, professors and alumni to work out whether a school is right for them. Cherubin recommends attending events on campus to begin courtship. Kellogg hosts “preview days” where prospective students can check out the school in Illinois and meet with current students.
An “assessment day” at IMD, where MBA applicants take classes on campus in Lausanne, was Keim’s most critical interaction with the business school. “This made me experience what a year would be like at IMD,” she says. “It felt collaborative and intimate. I didn’t feel like I was just a number.”
The business school also provides introductions to alumni and current students who are from the same country or are alumni of the same undergraduate schools.
“We find, however, that serious prospective students do not need much help. They find and establish contact themselves,” says Professor Seán Meehan, MBA dean at IMD.
Like most schools, his takes a holistic view of all elements of an application. With that in mind, admissions consultant Stacy Blackman recommends that MBA candidates place equal weight on all elements of the application.
“Each touchpoint is an opportunity to tell the admissions office something new about yourself. It’s a good thing that the adcom [admissions committee] will be judging you on your entire package. We’re all so much more than just our jobs, our grades, our volunteer experience,” she says.
A guide to the MBA application
A winning MBA application combines several components into one coherent narrative, using good examples to illustrate attractive qualities, like leadership. “After the adcom is finished reviewing all of your materials, they should have an understanding of your personality, what you’ve achieved, what your goals are, and what you could offer their program,” Blackman says.
A GMAT or GRE score shows your capacity to handle the MBA syllabus. Blackman says that good preparation is essential for a high score, such as using books or online forums.
She also recommends short intensive bursts of study over long sessions, and to time your practice answers to mirror the real tests.
Before any hardcore preparation, though, many prospective MBAs take a practice GMAT or GRE test, to gauge their abilities.
Résumé / CV
A good CV shows your career progression, increased responsibilities, demonstrated results and future goals. “Ensure that you highlight your key achievements, show the impact you had made and give examples of where you made a positive contribution,” says ESCP’s Centeno.
“Keywords such as leadership, teamwork and interpersonal skills are highly valued.”
The interview is an opportunity to be yourself and show why the business school is a good fit for you.
Cherubin, at Kellogg, advises that prospective students practice giving answers to potential questions, think about their own experiences and come with stories to share.
“But be yourself,” she adds. “There is a difference between being prepared and being scripted.”
Many business schools are now doing interviews via video conference apps. Make sure you prepare by choosing a quiet place with a non-intrusive background.
MBA essay (personal statement)
A winning essay is an honest reflection of your past and present, says IMD’s Meehan. “It is moving and inspiring. It leaves us with the impression that you are a fine, talented and fundamentally good person, who we would want to get to know and enjoy working with.”
He adds that he wants to see evidence of leadership ability and willingness to embrace responsibility.
Reference letters (letters of recommendation)
Meehan adds that choosing the right recommenders is key to your chances of admission.
“Go with someone whom you’ve worked with closely; someone who knows the quality of your work; a boss, mentor or colleague,” he says.
Above all, he adds: “Ensure you convey the reason you want to earn an MBA. Be clear and honest about your specific career goals – the more realistic and inspiring, the better.”